- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Through two preseason games and the regular-season opener, EJ Manuel avoided what plagues rookie quarterbacks the most: the bad interception.
Backed up close to his end zone, Manuel stared down receiver T.J. Graham, patted the ball (twice) and fired it into double coverage. The result was predictable, as linebacker Luke Kuechly stepped in front of the pass and hauled it in to give the Panthers the ball at the Bills' 26-yard line.
"I thought there were some critical mistakes," Bills coach Doug Marrone said after the game. "I thought we had a couple of tough reads where I don't think we made the best decisions."
Lucky for Manuel, Buffalo's defense came through after his interception, holding the Panthers to a field goal, just like it did earlier in the second half when Manuel was strip-sacked by Panthers safety Quintin Mikell deep in Bills territory.
Simply put, the defense bailed out the quarterback.
Up until his interception, the prevailing opinion was that Manuel provided the steady, reliable presence a team needs from a green passer. He wasn't going to win the game, but he wouldn't lose it, either.
That perception took a hit Sunday.
Following the Panthers' head-scratching decision to kick a 39-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 with 1:38 remaining, Manuel led the Bills on a textbook two-minute drive. It put Buffalo in position to score until it almost happened again:
The bad interception.
On third-and-6 with 21 seconds left, Manuel uncorked a bullet over the middle, directly into the chest of Panthers safety Colin Jones. Bad decision. Awful turnover. Crushing loss. Game over, right?
Not quite. Flags flew and the Bills had new life after Kuechly was penalized for pass interference. Two plays later, the Panthers forgot to cover Bills receiver Steve Johnson. Touchdown. Comeback win. Fantastic finish. What a game by the rookie.
Again, not quite.
Given the choice between the Manuel of the season-opening loss to New England and the Manuel of Sunday's comeback win, the Bills might well choose the former.
As a quarterback, making plays is important, but avoiding major mistakes is paramount. On the road against New Orleans in Week 8, or at the Rogers Centre against Atlanta in Week 13, you want Manuel to check down, take the safe route.
You don't want what you saw Sunday. The Panthers stumbled their way through stretches of this game and the Bills, playing at home, were able to pull it out, despite Manuel's miscues.
"The turnovers are the one thing that we don't accept, and he understands that," Marrone said after the game.
The positive for Manuel is that he has the personality for the job. That hasn't changed. Faced with the pressure of the game -- or worse, from his head coach -- he isn't one to panic.
"He keeps telling me, 'I'm all right,' and it gets me upset. That's the type of kid he is. He's very relaxed," Marrone said. "If he's all right, then why is he making these decisions?"
So while it's "all right" to praise Manuel for his game-winning drive, it's important to consider his performance over the entire game.
Young quarterbacks have done before what Manuel did Sunday. With the win, he became the fifth rookie quarterback since 1960 to lead his team on a fourth-quarter comeback drive in either his first or second game.
The others? Archie Manning (1971), Jim Druckenmiller (1997), Ryan Leaf (1998) and Geno Smith (2013).
That's not exactly the company Manuel wants, and it's another reason why it's key to keep his good plays in perspective with his bad plays.
As for Manuel, he has just the personality to do that.
"That's a quality that he has, that he's able to get right back on track," Marrone said. "He's in a good place mentally knowing he has a long way to go."